Cutting Ties with Teatro la Quindicina

I saw my first Teatro la Quindicina play in 2001 – the summer after I graduated high school. Cocktails at Pam’s had received a 4 1/2 star review in the Journal, and it seemed to be on everyone’s must-see list.  At the time, I was a volunteer, and redeeming volunteer appreciation Fringe bucks at the time meant waiting in line twice – once to get tickets at the door, and again to get seats. My friend and I waited over three hours total to see the production, which probably didn’t help our expectation level. Both of us came out of the show not having understood the humour – when the audience laughed, we didn’t even know a joke had been made. It happened to me then, and it has happened since then – sometimes a show just doesn’t jive with an individual because theatre, like other forms of art, is subjective.

In 2004, I attended my second Teatro show,  a remount of Shocker’s Delight during the regular theatre season. The show, about growing up, friendship and love, featured Ron Pederson, Jocelyn Ahlf and Josh Dean, and to this day, remains one of my all-time favourite productions. Every theatre patron has those handful of plays that they go back to, year after year, to be referenced as what cemented their love of theatre. Shocker’s Delight was one of those shows for me, so much so that I purchased a copy of A Teatro Trilogy: Selected Plays by Stewart Lemoine soon after.

Since then, I’ve been attending Teatro la Quindicina productions regularly – Pith!, The Oculist’s Holiday and last season’s Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s!, have been highlights over the past six years. Two years ago, because Mack and I were finding that we were attending most, if not all, of Teatro’s plays, we decided to purchase season subscriptions, figuring that was one way we could support the company.

For that reason, I was shocked to read Teatro Artistic Director Jeff Haslam’s comment, written on Saturday:

You come across as snotty and arrogant. I absolutely despise your pretension that you are “a reviewer” in any professional way. In fact every time I read one of your posts I think “I am not smitten with this weird women like her icky friends seem to be. I wish she’d stop subscribing to my theatre company, because she seems like such a pretentious doof. I wonder if she knows that her endlessly stuck-up self-important little reviews are deeply offensive to those of us who bust our buts for next to nothing to bring a little entertainment to this distant northern city? I wonder if she knows that her crappy 19 bucks goes to less than 40% of what it costs to pay all the artists she isn’t always smitten by? Do us all a favour lady. Write about food and take your entertainment dollar elsewhere.
Jeff Haslam

When I started this blog back in 2006, I wrote about many things, including theatre. One reason for this was so I could maintain a log of memorable shows, actors and playwrights as a personal reference guide. Another – which has become the driving force of my blog – was so I could showcase all that I love about Edmonton – local restaurants, area producers, festivals, and yes, theatre.

I have never claimed to be a professional reviewer. But like anyone who watches any production, I will have an opinion. Sure, most theatregoers may not take the time to express their opinion as I do, but they likely do so in other ways – telling friends, commenting on a review, updating a Facebook status. Though I doubt they would believe me anyway, I never meant to hurt or offend any of the Teatro actors; my intent wasn’t malicious, or personal, even though he has interpreted it as such. I was, in my mind, recording my experience of the shows (my posts about Teatro can be found here).

Mack wrote more about the process of confirming that comment was indeed submitted by Jeff Haslam, and I thank him for willing to be the go-between. I will admit to some cowardice on my part – as personal as their reaction seemed to be, mine was equally so. Six years of history with anything can do that to you.

Perhaps what’s most upsetting to me is when and how Jeff Haslam chose to disclose his feelings about my blog. There are numerous other routes he could have taken – an e-mail, for instance, or, in person, at one of Teatro’s shows (as a subscriber, I would have to call in to reserve my seats, so he would have known when I would be attending the plays). Also, last November, when I contacted him by e-mail for a post I wrote about shopping locally, he responded, but did not mention his opinion in his reply. The most opportune time in my mind, however, was in April of this year, when I renewed our subscription to Teatro. Could he not have communicated to me then of his preference that we stop attending his shows earlier, and save us from all of this? I think about all of the productions I have attended in the past few years, sitting in the audience unaware that the theatre company putting on the show really didn’t want me there.

He will ultimately get his wish – I can say with confidence that any production Jeff Haslam is involved in will never earn another dollar from me. And though I am saddened by how this happened, I look forward to supporting other theatre companies with my patronage in the future.

August 26, 2010 update: Mack and I received a handwritten apology from Jeff Haslam in the mail today. It was accompanied by a signed copy of Stewart Lemoine’s At the Zenith of the Empire, and a refund for the unused portion of our season subscriptions.

Teatro la Quindicina: “The Ambassador’s Wives”

The Ambassador’s Wives, Stewart Lemonine’s newest play that just wrapped up its run at the Varscona Theatre, is one of the best Teatro la Quindicina productions I’ve seen in a while. Unlike some reviewers, I’m not smitten with every Lemoine piece – there are some that ring truer, or happen to entertain me more than others.

The Ambassador’s Wives fell in the latter category, a super-charged ride through a farcical murder mystery:

“When the Monte Carlo embassy of the tiny yet volatile Balkan nation of Panonia is besieged by treacherous beauties as a result of a diplomat’s abundant political and romantic indiscretions, lethal consequences are simply inevitable.”

What was most refreshing about this production was the balance between Teatro favourites and newcomers to the Teatro team. Though I adore Davina Stewart and Jeff Haslam (Haslam played his typical sassy, impervious character, and Teatro regular Julien Arnold was outstanding as the infallible embassy attaché), it was nice to see the change of dynamics brought about by recent graduates Jenny McKillop, Kristi Hansen and Vincent Forcier. Hansen and Forcier were especially impressive – Hansen, as the effervescent aviator/Countess of Lichtenstein, had great comic timing, and Forcier, as the playboy to wealthy older women, seamlessly shifted from starry-eyed puppy dog to tactful investigator.

I think it also helped that the theatre was absolutely buzzing. The Ambassador’s Wives was the first Lemoine show I’ve attended outside of the Fringe that has sold out – the tone of the play can definitely be influenced – good or bad – by an audience’s response, or lack thereof.

In all, it was a good night – lots of laughter, fresh licorice, and the chance to see some young performers shine. You can catch Teatro at the Fringe Festival August 13-28 with another new Lemoine work titled Witness to a Conga. Should be fun!

Teatro la Quindicina: “On the Banks of the Nut”

Two weeks ago, Mack and I headed to the Varscona Theatre to check out the first production of the season from our favourite company – Teatro la Quindicina’s On the Banks of the Nut.

“…a plucky temp and affably inept federal talent agent [are] on a hare-brained talent quest in rural Wisconsin in 1951. Theirs is a madcap undertaking which involves pie, Mahler, bird-watching, embattled star-crossed lovers, a hapless lady tourist, and the abruptest civic election in history- all at the curiously appointed Nut River Lodge astride the noble banks of the River Nut.”

This play is another revival – from 2001 – and means that Teatro is drawing closer to restaging a play I may have seen in its original inception, as I started to follow the company around that time. I am also proud to say that we are season subscribers for a second year in a row.

Anyway, On the Banks of the Nut was most definitely a screwball comedy, and really asked the audience to suspend reason and logic on many levels. While I didn’t enjoy the storyline as much as other Teatro productions (though I had to chuckle at my favourite line, “Nut-ward ho!”), Kristen Padayas, who played the aforementioned temp Norine Cuthbert, was the shining star. I first saw Kristen in a mostly-forgettable role as a wealthy heiress in a Stewart Lemoine-penned MacEwan play, The Addelpated Nixie last March, then again a few months later in Space, a fun Fringe romp where she revelled in the role of a junior crew member. She was even better in On the Banks of the Nut – her comic timing and deadpan delivery put fellow cast member Eric Wigston (as the federal talent agent Pinkerton Sprague) to shame. I imagine she will be cast in more Teatro shows in the future, and I think she is a wonderful addition to the company! Mack and I also enjoyed Jeff Haslam (when don’t we?) – his hilarious accent and lovesick demeanour was fun to watch.

Next up for Teatro la Quindicina, the premier of  The Ambassador’s Wives, July 8-24, 2010, set in the French Riviera. It’s a great opportunity to get your feet wet in time for the Fringe in August!

Teatro la Quindicina: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Mack and I watched Teatro la Quindicina’s live radio version of It’s a Wonderful Life this afternoon at the Varscona. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but guessed that it would be a sort of hybrid of the stage reading style of Urban Tales and David Belke’s radio serial at the Fringe I saw a few years ago.

Lucky for us, it was even better than Belke’s radio serial, with the 50s-style costumes worn by the actors setting the tone immediately. The light-up on the air/applause sign for radio WTLQ and retro microphones were also a nice touch.

The talented cast, which included our favourites Jeff Haslam (as George Bailey) and Davina Stewart (as Mary Bailey) transported us to Bedford Falls, a community-minded town peppered with characters. The story, a familiar tale of finding what’s most important in life – family, friends and integrity – is always a comfort at Christmastime, a good reminder to be thankful and appreciate life as it is.

The music and sound effects helped enhance the experience, pushing our mind’s eye to picture everything from the Baileys’ residence to the fateful bridge where George contemplates ending his life. Cathy Derkach provided a wonderful musical soundtrack throughout, and Kendra Connor’s work as the foley artist was great, as she had to balance a table bursting with sound props (the use of a box of corn starch to mimic steps in the snow was ingenious).

The show even included two “commercial breaks” with cheeky advertisements of Teatro’s 2010 season and Irmengarde’s New Years’s Wrap Up on December 31. Mack especially liked the Teatro jingle.

All and all, it was a great matinee to be a part of. Unfortunately, It’s a Wonderful Life had a limited engagement of three shows, with the last one finishing up on stage as I write this. To tide you over until next year though, check out this hilarious clip of It’s a Wonderful Life in 30 seconds (and re-enacted by bunnies).

Teatro La Quindicina: “Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s!”

Last Wednesday, Mack and I attended the last Teatro La Quindicina performance of the season, a spirited musical comedy titled Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s! As with the last few years, the final play of their season highlights other local playwrights.

Mitzi’s was written as a tribute to the Edmonton supper club scene in the 1960s, cataloguing the romantic hijinx of staff in one particular establishment. The cast, made up of Teatro regulars and one recent graduate (Robyn Wallis) was solid, and the group definitely looked like they were having fun.

A band was up on stage and played through most of the production, which really helped to set the lighthearted tone. The songs were catchy and upbeat, and instead of simply being musical interludes, actually helped move the plot forward. My favourite was the duet featuring Tippi (Wallis) and Jack (Ryan Parker), if not only because it was the song most pleasing to my ear. The clever will-they-or-won’t-they duet between Mitzi’s staff Mitch (Andrew MacDonald Smith) and ‘Numbers’ (Jocelyn Ahlf) was also enjoyable.

The 60s-inspired costumes deserve a special mention as well <insert ubiquitous Mad Men reference here>, and in particular I thought Tippi’s wardrobe stole the show (she seemed to change outfits after every scene).

The play ended on a very optimistic note – one that sees the characters adopt a forward-looking stance on the city’s development, which is not unlike the outlook many citizens have on the current state of Edmonton. It was a fitting ending, and left me smiling as I left the theatre.

Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s runs until October 24.

Stage a Revolution: Day 3

Our first day at the 2009 Fringe involved two plays, a lot of nibbles, and the obligatory grounds exploration.

I was particularly interested to see Revolution Square, billed in the program as a multi-use area and internet cafe. What it is in actuality is a beer tent that substitutes coffee for beer, with four computers set-up with internet access. It’s a nice family-friendly idea that provides an expansive seating section, but we’ll have to wait and see if it is utilized.

The food vendors seem to be more spread out this year, with some booths actually set-up in the typically retail-only area in front of Fringe volunteer headquarters. In addition, I’m disappointed that the “Fringe midway” is gone – I wonder if poor attendance was to blame for its demise? Lastly, I’m sad to see that complimentary copies of the Edmonton Journal are not available on the grounds this year (they also eliminated this perk at the Heritage and Folk Festivals). We were told by an information booth volunteer that the Journal said that they could “no longer afford” to offer free papers. I can say that Fringe attendees are typically rabid for reviews, and people gravitated towards the papers that were readily available on site. I wonder if this change will result in a change in how people select their shows – from choosing based on star rating to choosing based on content?

Our first show of the day was Teatro la Quindicina’s The Oculist’s Holiday. The premise of vacation hijinx reminded us of A Rocky Night for His Nibs, but the tone of this play eventually changed from one of lighthearted fun to introspection and tragedy. I have to say that the pacing threw me off (Jeff Haslam’s purposeful stumbles took a while to get used to), but Barbara Gates Wilson’s almost regal presence helped stabilize the somewhat unpredictable turn of events. The end of the play has been resonating with me even now, hours later, and without giving anything away, was a reminder to embrace opportunity.

Later that afternoon, we took in LoveHateKill, also at the Varscona Theatre. Five separate playlets by five different authors ruminated on some variation of love, hate, and kill, which was a fun interpretive exercise. My favourite, in both plot and acting was “A Love Story” by Trina Davies, exquisitely brought to life by Shannon Blanchet, who is rapidly becoming an actress to watch (she was great in Teatro’s Evelyn Strange, and also starred this past season in Catalyst’s Nevermore). The playlet recounted a woman’s experience of falling in love with an accused killer, and her efforts to be with him. The rest were somewhat interesting (for example, “Social Sundays” highlighted a sadistically creative games night between couples), but not particularly notable. Mack loved the random interlude of the “Jai Ho” Slumdog Millionaire Bollywood dance.

We’ll be back on the grounds tomorrow – looking forward to it!

Teatro La Quindicina: “Mother of the Year”

After the disappointing Teatro La Quindicina season debut of Connie in Egypt, Mack and I were looking to the mid-season romp Mother of the Year to help redeem our hope for the season. It did, somewhat.

Mother of the Year is a companion piece to one of the shows playing at the Free Will Shakespeare Festival, Titus Andronicus (a nod to the current economy, ticket holders gain a $10 discount to Titus). From the website:

“Set in Edmonton during the 1980’s, Mother of the Year unfurls the dramatically hilarious saga of a pair of rival meat packing companies and the families who run them. It’s a fast-paced, shockingly Shakespearean display of simmering resentments, disastrous marital alliances, quiet double-crosses, and bold betrayals, all played out in a world strongly reminiscent of such classic Reagan Era prime time soap operas as Dynasty, Dallas, and Knot’s Landing.”

I was a little afraid all of the 80s references would turn us off (in the same vein as Cocktails at Pam’s), but thankfully, they weren’t overdone. There were just a few references to neighbourhoods that had the over-40 set laughing.

As a whole, notwithstanding the outlandish personalities and ridiculous plot twists, Mother of the Year was fairly enjoyable. The Lemoine-ian quips were out in full force, and the Teatro regulars spun them into gold. In particular, I enjoyed Sheri Somerville as the satisfyingly blunt escort Mrs. Jones, and Davina Stewart as the dutiful Persis Renshaw (what a name!). At the same time, although I know the second half was meant to satirize the inane plot twists inherent in soaps, the rapid-fire way in which they came made it seem like Lemoine just didn’t care anymore – a contrast to his usual whimsical, but clever endings.

Mother of the Year runs until July 25 at the Varscona Theatre.

Teatro La Quindicina: “Thrubwell’s Pies”

Mack and I went to check out the last Teatro la Quindicina production of the year, titled Thurbwell’s Pies. While not written by Stewart Lemoine, he is credited on the program with assisting actress/playwright Belinda Cornish with her latest work. She received much praise for her first play Diamond Dog, so there was some excitement going into her sophomore try.

From AIEEEEE!, the “Voice of Teatro La Quindicina”:

“Set in a gothic manor house in the misty depths of Somerset, England, Thrubwell’s Pies is itself a delicious concoction, with a flaky crust of laughs concealing a toothsome filling of harrowing and unexpected twists and turns. Sheri Somerville stars as Alicia Montague, the tempestuous wheelchair-bound heiress to a pie-baking fortune, with Mark Meer as her impeccably perplexed new husband Shepton. Author Belinda Cornish also appears as their surly and inscrutable maid Scrofula, and Rapid Fire Theatre/Theatresports whiz kid Amy Shostak makes her Teatro debut in the role of Nettie Thrubwell, a winsome bakeress whose arrival in the neighbourhood has completely calamitous consequences for all.”

This is probably the first play starring more than two people that I’ve seen in recent years where each member of the cast has an equal role in the play, both in terms of stage time and importance to the story. I wouldn’t consider any of the characters “supporting”, as even the maid Scrofula, seen creeping in the background in the early scenes, is later featured in the climactic and suspenseful ending.

I didn’t see Diamond Dog, so I didn’t know what to expect, but if Thrubwell’s Pies is any indication of Cornish’s abilities as a playwright, I’m sold. Unlike some of Lemoine’s plays, the audience was immediately teased with an undertone of mystery, and we were hooked, wanting to find out more about Alicia’s history, Nettie’s motives and the root of Scrofula’s odd behaviors. Also, the payoff was worth the wait – I almost wished we could have skipped the intermission altogether.

The cast was great as well, despite the uneven British accents. And though I’ve seen Meer in roles that cast him in more everyman positions, it still throws me off when he isn’t dressed in some kind of disguise or wild garment. Cornish also deserves mention as she took on the most unbecoming character, and “took one for the team” so to speak, setting up the dramatic climax.

While there will be no Teatro productions until May (as they’ve changed their season to begin in the spring), Lemoine has adapted The Addelpated Nixie for the Grant MacEwan Theatre Arts stage, which will run March 13 – 21, 2009.

Thrubwell’s Pies runs until October 11.

The Big Kahuna: Day 2

On Friday night I went to see Happy Toes, Teatro la Quindicina’s return to the Fringe. Stewart Lemoine’s piece on friendship, possibilities, and happiness was poignant, and even more so in hindsight. There were a few moments of awkward pauses and odd pacing, but I chose to think such things would improve themselves over the course of the festival. For the most part the cast did a great job – Jeff Haslam was en pointe with line delivery that milked for laughs, and Leona Brausen was her usual delightful self on stage. It was nice to see Ron Pederson again, though Mack thought he was dialing in his performance. My favourite moment was the tender one between Haslam and Pederson’s characters – a lovely space of understanding and appreciation. The show has likely sold out for its run (it received five stars in the Journal today), so get tickets quick if you still can, or wait for the holdovers August 26-30 at the Varscona.

Teatro la Quindicina: “A Rocky Night for His Nibs”

It was an absolutely packed house on Tuesday, only fitting for the large cast of A Rocky Night for His Nibs. From Teatro la Quindicina’s website:

“Perched by a glacial lake and presided over by the stately Prince of Wales Hotel, there’s no quieter or more pristine North American destination than the gentle town of Waterton. At least that’s how it usually is, but then there was that one time when everyone showed up. Everyone. At once.”

I have no doubt that Nibs is destined to become a classic in the vein of Cocktails at Pam’s. A mix of interesting personas, a case of (self)mistaken identity (amnesia could be a category for a Lemoine drinking game), and a mysterious yet familiar setting equal an almost no-fail Lemoinian forumula for entertaining hijinx. I found the exchanges particularly witty, and as a whole, a play much better than the season debut, Revenge of the South Sea Bubble. While the deux ex machine ending was too easy, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself in spite of the million-dollar cop-out.

All of the actors looked like they were having a great time, many cast in roles seemingly written just for them: Farren Timoteo as a height-challenged, giddy wanderer; Sheri Somerville as a striking woman on the run with a musical talent; and Andrew MacDonald-Smith as an awkwardly-gangly Hutterite with a naïve disposition. I particularly enjoyed Mark Meer as an unassuming everyman (a departure from his usual accented-antics), the Hutterite exes (Shannon Blanchet was the female half), and Mat Busby’s smooth turn as the hotelier’s right hand man.

If anything, A Rocky Night for His Nibs has made me more excited for the upcoming Fringe. Watch for Teatro’s (hopefully triumphant) return to the summer festival with the optimistically-titled Happy Toes, playing at the Varscona stage.